The New York Yankees were global even before Kei Igawa, Wang Chien-ming and Hideki Matsui donned the pinstripes, but diversifying the roster is only the beginning for the well-known club.
After visiting China to further spread the Yankees brand and baseball at large, officials from the team stopped in Japan, building on some of its old ties.
General manager Brian Cashman and team president Randy Levine met with Yomiuri Giants officials Thursday and will travel to Okinawa on Friday, when they will meet with counterparts from the Hanshin Tigers, Igawa’s former team.
“Asia is very, very important to the New York Yankees. It has been for several years, and it will continue to climb in importance,” Levine said.
The China visit was about brokering an agreement between the Chinese Baseball Association and the Yankees. The team will send coaches, scouts and trainers to China to spur baseball’s development.
In Japan, talks and meetings had a different tone, and some discussion was directly related to dollar signs, namely the high fees MLB teams pay for negotiation rights with Japanese players who are not free agents through the posting system.
Under the system, teams present sealed bids, and the highest bidder wins exclusive rights to negotiate a contract with the player. If no deal is struck within 30 days of the bid’s announcement, the player returns to his Japanese team and the MLB team gets its money back.
Before this offseason, the record fee was Ichiro Suzuki’s, which was $13.1 million. A pitching-starved free agency pool helped Igawa and Daisuke Matsuzaka shatter Ichiro’s fee. The Yankees won rights to Igawa for $26,000,194, and the Boston Red Sox shelled out $51.1 million for Matsuzaka.
To put it in perspective, Igawa’s posting fee was almost double the Florida Marlins’ sub-$15 million payroll, while Matsuzaka’s topped the entire payroll of five teams, and none of that money goes toward the player’s salary.
“The posting system has existed for a few years now, and and this year with the rather unique situation of the high posting fees, we are all looking at it,” Cashman said. “One thing we discussed was the posting system and if there was a better way for it to be done.”
Both Cashman and Levine stressed that the posting-related talks should not be interpreted as a bellwether of immediate change, however.
“Those are things both sides, Major League Baseball and the Japanese baseball officials, will go back to their think tanks and re-evaluate,” Cashman said. “Trying to find a better way is everyone’s goal in the long run.”
The posting system resulted from pitched Hideki Irabu’s departure from Japanese baseball in 1997. The San Diego Padres negotiated an agreement with Irabu’s Chiba Lotte Marines to gain exclusive rights to the pitcher, setting a standard.
Although the Yankees bid for Matsuzaka, Cashman did not disclose the amount. He said the Yankees were more worried about Igawa as word of Boston’s massive bid scared off most competition.
“The bidding for Igawa was more competitive,” Cashman said. “We heard there were four teams with bids of $15 million or more, so we did not get it by that much.”
The groundwork MLB and the Yankees laid in China may save potential headaches when Chinese baseball eventually produces a major league-caliber player.
The government-owned CBA will eventually have to face the same situation Nippon Professional Baseball has, when top-shelf stars want to take their craft overseas.
“You have to have a great system first, and we need to help with that grassroots process,” Cashman said. “Roots will grow.”
Levine said a player from China would play in the majors in “years, not generations.”
“I don’t think it will be long,” he said.
Former big-league manager Jim Lefebvre, who works in international development for MLB and is the Chinese national baseball team’s coach for the Beijing Olympics, has said a Chinese will make the jump within 10 years.
The potential difficulties for the Yankees or any other team that may import a Chinese player also have precedent. When basketball star Yao Ming entered the NBA Draft, his complex contract with the Houston Rockets had to be approved at various levels, not to mention that half his salary going to the Chinese government.
And as baseball facilities in Beijing rise up from the ground, the Yankees will hope their dealings in the Wild, Wild East prove to be rewarding.
“We make these kinds of investments all the time,” Levine said. “They usually pay off, and we’re very confident this one will pay off.”